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Analysis

Santorum begins to concede 2012 race with warning

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks Tuesday during a campaign rally at a hotel in Mars, Pa.

Faced with increasingly long odds of catching Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, and the near certainty of his rival securing it before any possible brokered convention in Florida this summer, Rick Santorum has begun to concede the 2012 race in his own way.

After losing the Wisconsin, Maryland, and District of Columbia primaries on Tuesday, Santorum warned that if Romney wins the nomination this summer but is defeated for the presidency this fall by Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, Republicans will only have themselves to blame for bypassing a self-proclaimed true conservative like him.

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In so doing, Santorum would have a strong base for running for president in 2016 — just like Ronald Reagan rebounded to win the White House in 1980 after Republicans rejected him in favor of the more moderate Gerald R. Ford in 1976.

But Santorum insisted he’s going to continue his campaign at least through May because he’d rather spare his party that painful repeat.

“Let’s not make the mistake of 1976 again,” said the former Pennsylvania senator. “Let’s bypass that era, and move straight to 1980, and let’s defeat a Democratic incumbent.”

Santorum spoke in his homestate, one of five to vote in the next big group of contests on April 24.

In football-crazed Pennsylvania, he tried to use a sports analogy to justify continued campaigning.

“We have now reached the point where it’s halftime — half the delegates in this process have been selected — and who’s ready to charge out of the locker room in Pennsylvania for a strong second half?” he told less-than-ebullient supporters gathered in Mars, Pa.

Santorum added: “Pennsylvania and half the other people of this country have yet to be heard, and we’re going to go out and campaign here and across this nation to make sure that their voices are heard in the next three months.”

Yet beyond casting himself as a guardian of the electorate, Santorum outlined a cool political calculation.

He labeled himself the only viable conservative remaining in the campaign, saying, “We need someone in this race who can go out and make the clarion call for liberty.”

Santorum suggested Romney cannot do so on the hotly contested issue of universal health care, because Obama modeled his 2010 federal program after the state program Romney enacted in 2006 while governor of Massachusetts. Romney now explains that states — not the federal government — should be free to devise solutions to such problems.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if we’re going to win this race, we can’t have little differences between our nominee and President Obama,” said Santorum. “We have to have clear, contrasting colors.”

For emphasis, he added: “We don’t win by moving to the middle. We win by getting people in the middle to move to us and move this country forward.”

Santorum went on to cite the example of how Republicans unseated an incumbent Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) in 1980 for the first time in over a century by nominating Reagan after first rejecting his conservative politics four years earlier.

He urged his party members to avoid a similar fate this year — an “I-told-you-so” warning that could prove prescient should Romney lose, and which would allow him to reassert his conservative bona fides if and when Santorum returns to the paid speaking circuit and to Fox News Channel as a political analyst.

Confronting him were exit polls showing the breadth of Romney’s building strength.

He not only led the field in virtually all the sectors measured in polls conducted in Wisconsin and Maryland (they were not done in Washington), but Romney took 70 percent of the vote in Wisconsin from those who said defeating Obama was the top factor for them in choosing an opponent.

In Maryland, the number rose to 72 percent.

For his part, Romney took his triple wins in stride.

While they pushed him past the halfway point for the 1,144 delegates he needs to win the nomination, and will require Santorum to win over 75 percent of the remaining delegates if he hopes to capture the nomination himself before the Republican National Convention in late August, Romney ignored his party rivals and instead focused solely on Obama.

Earlier in the day, the president baited Romney by addressing him directly for the first time in a speech.

Obama noted that Romney had said he was “very supportive” of a budget plan put forth by Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican who had been accompanying the former governor across his home state of Wisconsin since last Friday.

“It is a Trojan Horse,” Obama said of the proposal. “Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism.

“It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it; a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last - education and training, research and development, our infrastructure - it is a prescription for decline,” said the president.

Romney retorted that Obama had become delusional “flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you that you’re great and you’re doing a great job.”

Outlining a broad general election-style theme, he said Obama favors a “government-centered society” instead of the “opportunity-based society” Romney envisions.

“In Barack Obama’s government-centered society, the government has to do more because the economy is doomed to do less,” he said. “In Barack Obama’s government-centered society, tax increases become not only a necessity, but also a desired tool for social justice. In that world of shrinking means, there’s a finite amount of money, and as someone once famously said, you need to have some taxes to spread the wealth around.”

Romney asserted: “I don’t want to transform America; I want to restore to restore to America the economic values of freedom and opportunity and limited government that have made us the powerhouse of the world.”

The other two remaining candidates in the race - former House speaker Newt Gingrich and US Representative Ron Paul of Texas - were non-factors in the evening.

Gingrich released a statement as the returns rolled in expressing his support for Texans suffering in the aftermath of tornadoes that swept through the Dallas-Fort Worth area earlier in the day.

But after he went 0-for-3, Gingrich couldn’t resist a jab at the 3-for-3 Romney.

“We cannot win on an Etch A Sketch platform that shows no principle or backbone,” he said in another statement. “The Washington establishment wants to declare this race over, but I am committed to carrying the banner of bold conservative colors all the way to Tampa to ensure the Republican Party never abandons the timeless conservative principles of Ronald Reagan and the Contract with America.”

Paul’s campaign, meanwhile, issued a statement outlining his schedule in California through Thursday.

The congressman has yet to win a primary or caucus during the 2012 campaign, and that state doesn’t vote until June 5.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.
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